Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder that can have serious repercussions if left untreated. This sleep disorder is identified by ongoing periods of interrupted breathing while sleeping. When this happens, breathing is either greatly reduced or temporarily stopped. There are many factors that can put people at risk for developing sleep apnea. Sleep apnea risk factors are varied, but can include obesity, being male, and the use of sedatives.1
There are three types of sleep apnea. These are: obstructive sleep apnea, central sleep apnea, and complex sleep apnea. Obstructive sleep apnea is the most common form of sleep apnea. It occurs when the throat muscles relax while sleeping, which causes the airways to narrow, making breathing difficult. The second type of sleep apnea, central sleep apnea, is brought about by the brain not sending signals to the body to breathe correctly during sleep, resulting in intermittent breathing during sleep. This type of sleep apnea is often caused by other neurological conditions. Lastly, there is complex sleep apnea, which is a mixture of the first two types of sleep apnea. Sleep apnea can cause sleep deprivation and lack of sleep effects both your mind and body.
Sleep apnea can affect your body in a number of ways. Most noticeably, sleep apnea can cause chronic loud snoring. Along with snoring, you may find yourself waking in the night, gasping for air. Sleep apnea often results in periods of not breathing, which may go unnoticed if unsupervised. This is often accompanied by waking up with a headache or dry mouth.2 Often, people who suffer from central sleep apnea report restlessness and insomnia as the primary side effect of sleep apnea.3
Sleep apnea symptoms in women are more likely to go unnoticed, as women often have less intense signs of sleep apnea such as loud snoring or gasping for air.4
In the long term, sleep apnea can have other negative effects on your body. Because sleep apnea affects your breathing, you may have fluctuating oxygen levels during the night. Irregular breathing can also put more pressure on the heart. The physical repercussion of these issues can include high blood pressure, stroke, or heart attack.5
Sleep apnea can also exacerbate other underlying health conditions, such as asthma.
Sleep apnea can result in poor sleep quality, which can have a psychological effect on overall well-being. Many people with sleep apnea report that poor sleep leads to daytime sleepiness. This excessive daytime fatigue may affect concentration and the ability to be attentive and feel present.
Chronic lack of sleep can also lead to irritability and the inability to control and balance one’s moods. Ongoing sleep apnea has been found to be linked to heightened anxiety and a higher rate of depression. Studies have found that this higher likelihood of developing depression6 and anxiety is linked to changing levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide during the night.
Some people may also experience anxiety caused by managing their sleep apnea with a CPAP machine. The use of CPAP machines has been known to make some people feel claustrophobic or anxious about the feel or sound of the machine on their face during sleep.7
More mild forms of sleep apnea do not necessarily affect the heart. However, severe cases of sleep apnea may put pressure on the heart due to irregular breathing, which can cause a variety of heart-related issues. Obstructive sleep apnea increases the likelihood of heart problems and is often linked to high blood pressure and being overweight.
If sleep apnea is treated and mitigated, the long-term effects of sleep apnea do not have to negatively impact your life. However, severe sleep apnea may put you at greater risk for having a heart attack, stroke, or heart failure.
Leaving sleep apnea untreated can be dangerous. Untreated sleep apnea can disrupt your mood and lead to serious physical health repercussions, including problems with heart function and high blood pressure.
The best treatment for sleep apnea depends on the type and severity of the sleep apnea. Participating in a sleep study can help you get a tailored medical treatment plan. However, many people first try changes to their lifestyle, such as attempting weight loss, reducing alcohol consumption,8 and sleeping on their side.9 If these lifestyle changes don’t bring relief, there are several other options. One of the most popular solutions to treat obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea is the use of a positive airway pressure (PAP) machine. The most common of these machines is a continuous airway pressure (CPAP) machine, which provides a constant flow of air to your air passages, allowing you to breathe continuously.
© 2021 American Sleep Association.